Growing up, I had what one would call a religious upbringing. While in my home, Judaism and Jewish tradition was less about religion and more of a cultural, ancestral mandate; school was a different story. I went to a very religious yeshiva for most of my childhood, where things were markedly different than at home. The school day was split in two. Half was dedicated to religious studies, conducted primarily in Hebrew. We had mandatory prayer, mandatory Torah study (in the original Aramaic), mandatory study of secondary ancient texts, and extensive review of various rabbinical commentaries… you get the idea. The second half of the school day was dedicated to the less-important subjects, things like math, english, history, etc. Non-essential subjects and critical thinking were off-limits, for the most part. Frankly, I was so disengaged most of the time, that I remember almost nothing from all those years of schooling. (That’s not entirely true. I remember quite a lot. What I don’t have any recollection of is the religious content they tried so hard to inculcate.)
Preferring to remain secure within a closely knit immigrant community, my family didn’t assimilate much into mainstream American life. And as far as I can tell, in retrospect, the school was bizarrely exclusionary. Their approach to education was to keep the “chosen” children completely sheltered from the bad, scary world of anti-semitic gentiles, lurking behind every corner. Worse than the gentiles though, were Jews like me who weren’t observant or conservative enough to meet their rigorous standards. The idea of “fitting in” was a challenge for me pretty much everywhere.
When high school approached, I broke free of all of it, and joined the rest of secular society. The transition wasn’t easy, but I was thrilled to be unburdened and released into the real world. High school brought its own set of challenges, as it always does, but fitting into a very diverse community was a lot easier. The one thing that stayed with me for years after was that I wanted nothing to do with religion ever again. I didn’t pray. I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays (much to my family’s dismay). And I haven’t visited a synagogue in probably twenty years. If I had to label me back then, I’d call me an agnostic, I suppose. I believed in fragments of metaphysical things, but rejected everything to do with religion.
In his treatise Atheism, Sir Francis Bacon writes “a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.” I just found this quote a few weeks ago. It was wonderfully exciting for me, because that’s precisely what happened next…
The majority of my spiritual work over the last few years has very little to do with the metaphysical or esoteric. You can call most of it self-awareness training. In the very beginning, and for the first few months, I was practically clueless. I felt called to it, compelled to do it, but I didn’t know why. I had no idea that my inner quest for self-discovery, awareness, and truth was called “spirituality.”
And so for the next several years, living as something of a hermit, I spent my time in deep personal contemplation and inquiry. As I worked with my teacher, listened to other teachers, and read an entire library of books, I would occasionally come across the mention of God. It wasn’t religious or about faith exactly, but there was a kind of tone of humility (sort of a “Thy will be done,” first and foremost). I didn’t pay much attention to it. I didn’t go very far into cosmology or the esoteric teachings. I was much more interested in the grounded, practical tools for transformation. I really just wanted to be happy. I didn’t care about spirituality, per se. I didn’t care about enlightenment. I just wanted to be free of the emotional suffering I had endured for years. What I found worked, and I kept at it.
And so, at every mention of God, or Lord, or Creator, or anything like that, internally, I would cringe. Ugh. No. Not God. Please no. I know all about God. I’ve had enough of God through many torturous childhood years; enough indoctrination to last me a lifetime… The last thing I wanted was to go back to rules, and dogma, and judgment, and us versus them. So I kept my agnostic skeptical hat firmly in place, as I dove deeper and deeper into myself.
That’s when things started to get really weird. I began having experiences, some physical, some energetic, that I could not explain nor contextualize in any rational way. I’ve written about some of these experiences here, but they actually started slowly, subtly long before the full awakening began. They are almost impossible to reduce coherently or meaningfully into words.
I began having psychic visions, intuitive downloads of wisdom and insight, brilliant moments of clarity and connectedness, experiences of pure bliss and love and humility and service, incredible synchronicities (sometimes many of them a day), physical sensations inside and outside (!) the confines of my body… I could write several books on all of what I’ve experienced in the last few years.
Then, one day I was standing by the window in my apartment just watching the clouds. A fierce powerful wind was coming in, and I could feel a kind of electrical charge coming from it. Like it was interacting with me somehow. Something strange, and ominous, and powerful was happening, but I didn’t know what.
And as I backed away from the window, God appeared to me. With my mind’s eye, I suddenly saw a vast dark smokey shadow before me. It was so immense and powerful that the only thing I could do was fall to my knees in reverence and cry. I stayed that way for a long time, sobbing on the floor.
This force is infinite beyond words. An intelligence greater than anything our human minds can understand. My mind kept trying to grasp its magnitude, but I couldn’t. There were no edges. There were no forms or shapes. This shadow stayed for a short time, and then disappeared. It didn’t say anything, but the message was clear – God is everything and everywhere.
Now, I know how all of this sounds. I know exactly how it sounds. I see the looks on the faces of people when I tell them this story. It’s so outside the realm of possibility, that they scrunch up their faces, and shrug their shoulders not knowing what to make of any of it. Am I crazy? Do I need psychiatric treatment? Did I hallucinate this? No one can begin to fathom the possibility that I’m telling the truth; or that what’s happened to me is real.
No one asks the seemingly obvious follow up questions (“what was it like? How did it feel? Has it happened since? What does it mean?”). Not one single person asks me this. They all find polite ways to steer the conversation to something else. It is as if I told them that I went to Paris for a vacation, and instead of asking me “how was it?” they say something like “well, if you believe you went to Paris… I suppose I’m happy for you.”
Invalidation, at it’s finest. It’s okay. I don’t blame them, nor do I look to them for validation. I understand why they respond to me that way. I wouldn’t believe me either, if I was in their shoes. I would probably jump to the simplest skeptical reduction: she’s having a psychiatric episode. It’s completely understandable. It is the simplest way to avoid dealing with the bigger questions that arise. Nevertheless, it’s what actually happened to me. (And it’s happened again since that time).
But I’m not alone or unique in these experiences. Forget all the historical mystics and biblical figures. I know other people, living, psychologically stable humans, going through a similar spiritual development, who also have experiences of God. They aren’t prophets, and they aren’t schizophrenics. They aren’t religious people, and they didn’t come to these experiences through faith or devotion or religious ecstatic rituals.
The more accurate explanation is closer to what Sir Bacon wrote. The deeper you go inward, the deeper levels of self-awareness you attain, the closer you get to the mystical, divine, essential truths and experiences. It doesn’t matter if you call it God, or cosmic consciousness, or Shiva, or any other name you wish. You are free to make up your own name for it. But there is no doubt something vastly, unimaginably, unfathomably greater than our human existence.
Few people really understand this, but the quest for truth, the seeking of wisdom, the living of life in a heart-centered way, is what all the ancient schools of philosophy were all about. The famous philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome (too numerous to list here) were conveying to their students not abstract concepts, nor meaningless rhetorical debate. They were conveying a philosophical system of living in the world. A way of being. A way of understanding life, people, relationships, work, art, purpose, and most importantly, love. Something we are sorely sorely missing in our lives today.
It doesn’t require faith. It doesn’t require adherence to anything. It is quite the opposite – it is about liberation. True liberation of the soul. An undoing. An unlearning. A de-conditioning of the mind. That’s what spirituality is all about.
These direct experiences of divine love and bliss are available to any serious spiritual seeker, in a variety of traditions. I am not special; nor am I chosen; nor are any of the people who share my experiences. It is within all of us. We all have this capacity. It is available to anyone committed to going inward and seeking truth. (And sometimes these experiences happen spontaneously to people with absolutely no spiritual education, interest, or background. A wake up call from the soul, in my view).
Take it from someone who had zero faith and a vehement rejection of religion; the deeper you go within your own self, the closer you get to the Divine.